At the beginning of February, we introduced a new policy to charge a fee for people wishing to place an obituary in The BMJ. The response on social media has been overwhelmingly negative, with comments suggesting that both the idea and the timing were ill judged. We have listened to readers and we will not now be introducing the fee. No contributors have been charged. We recognise and apologise for the upset this episode has caused.
One of only two bits of advice from my predecessor-but-one, Steven Lock, who edited The BMJ between 1975 and 1991, was “Don’t mess with the obituaries.” Yesterday’s social media storm shows that, as well as this being a particularly difficult time for doctors and their families, the obituaries still hold a special place in the relationship between the journal and its readers. Traditionally, the obituary pages were more highly read than any others, and yesterday’s social media commentators reflect continuing fondness for these brief summaries of lives well lived in the service of others. Perhaps they hold a particular fascination for doctors, allowing us to scan for the names of former colleagues, check on the dates of birth to assess our own survival chances, or ponder the causes of death, which we strongly encourage contributors to include.
So given all of this, how did we come up with the decision to charge a fee? The idea of charging for placing an obituary has been considered in the past. It’s something that most newspapers do as a matter of course. (As with newspapers, a charge would have applied only to the short obituary notices submitted by friends and families of the deceased and not to the longer, commissioned, journalistic obituaries of doctors of national or international renown.) Access for reading the obituaries would not have changed, and contributors would have been given a toll free link so they could share the notice freely with others.
Like all publications we need to find ways to be financially sustainable, and we need to do this while continuing to publish the best possible academic and magazine content and to innovate editorially and technologically. However, we recognise that these are especially challenging times for doctors and their families, and I hope this goes some way to explaining what clearly seemed to many of you an inexplicable decision. To support the response to the pandemic around the world, we have made all of our covid related content free for the past year and will continue to do so. Last year we joined forces with the BMA in setting up a memorial page on bmj.com to honour doctors who have died from covid-19 contracted while working on the pandemic front line, and we will continue to campaign for proper protection and wellbeing for all healthcare workers.
Fiona Godlee, editor in chief, The BMJ.